I’ve now spent more of my career as an author than I did as a book editor, and I can tell you this: It’s far more fun to be an author.
What I also know is that time spent working in publishing is the best training a writer can get. Of course most of you don’t have that option. Over the years, I’ve offered plenty of advice on being productive and writing well. So here I’d like to share some things I learned about publishing — both from working in the business and from being an author.
Taste matters. When I was starting out as an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press, I heard someone at a rival publishing house say of my boss, “He has great taste.”
I’d always thought an editor just picked the best books. It never occurred to me that taste had anything to do with it. But as I began to acquire projects myself I realized it was all about taste. That helped me when I had to reject manuscripts, a job that pains editors more than most authors can imagine.
FOMO (fear of missing out) is a huge thing for acquisitions editors. A work may not excite you, but maybe you’re not quite getting it. You hold onto it because you’re not sure. It’s hard to be sure. The most experienced editors know to trust their own taste. I learned to adjust my thinking when rejecting manuscripts. I told myself that I wasn’t saying this book shouldn’t be published, just that I wasn’t the one to do it. Sure it’s harder to be rejected than to write rejection letters but don’t assume that declining your manuscript was a quick decision or that the rejection letter you received was easy to write.
Don’t rush the proposal. Before you can write a good proposal for your book project, you have to do a boatload of work. You have to know who the audience is (hint — it’s never the “general educated reader”; there is no such creature) and how to reach it. You have to know your competition: Are there other books out there like the one you’re writing? How will your book be different? Saying “there’s nothing like this out there” will never fly. Publishers think in categories. Know where your book fits.
As you write your proposal, ask yourself: Why would anyone care about this topic? Make sure you have a good answer. “It’s really interesting” is not a good answer. That may work to justify an article, but not something someone has to plop down a chunk of change to buy. In two previous columns I’ve sketched out some hints on writing good book proposals. The bottom line: It takes more than just a good idea.
Seek out criticism — and then listen to it. It’s great to feel confident about your work. However, if someone says there’s a problem, trust me, there’s a problem. If a peer reviewer, an editor, a friend, or a copyeditor tells you that some aspect of the book isn’t working, you need to believe it. They may not be able to tell you how to fix the problem, but don’t dismiss their advice. The best writers solicit criticism and then take what they can use.
And remember: No writing is ever wasted. If I start out with 5,000 words for a 1,500-word column, I’m doing well. I expect to complete a draft and throw out most of it. Being able and willing to cut the flab out of your own prose, to hone and define your argument, to make the entire thing more muscular, is something you owe your readers. Otherwise, you may not have readers.
Deadlines are your friends. Many books, especially serious scholarly ones, are not time-sensitive and so it doesn’t matter much when they appear. And since there usually aren’t six-figure advances involved (or even five- or four-figure ones), university presses don’t need to hurry you along to make back their money.
However, they do need to plan their lists. You get to decide when you’ll deliver the manuscript. Be realistic. Also, be aware that you don’t want your contract to become an albatross. I’ve seen too many folks done in by manuscripts that hang around so long they start to stink. Done is better than perfect, especially since perfect is impossible. If you’re lucky, you will have someone in your life to help hold you accountable for meeting deadlines.
Be nice to assistants. Publishing is filled with smart young people at the lowest levels. The person answering the phone for your publisher today may be working on book acquisition next week. An assistant’s enthusiasm could be the thing that brings your manuscript to the top of the slush pile.
You will be working with a team. The editor will kick the manuscript over to a copyeditor, and then to someone in marketing. Be nice to everyone at every step of the process. And for Pete’s sake, thank them in the acknowledgments. It takes a village to produce a book. Only a jerk fails to recognize that and offer due gratitude.
Don’t be a pain. Make it easy for people to do their jobs. Most authors I worked with as an editor were professional and only sent in well-polished manuscripts. Others, however, could be difficult — not because they weren’t excellent scholars, but because they figured their job as a writer was only to do the parts they were interested in.
There’s no better way to sour a publisher on your project than to submit a manuscript that’s a mess, that’s twice as long as the contractual length, or that features a sudden influx of previously unmentioned illustrations. Most presses will send instructions on how to prepare the text, and it’s up to you to make sure every word is spelled correctly, that illustrations are properly labeled, and that the manuscript is complete, final, and good. Pain-in-the-butt authors have a way of being karmically punished: An assistant you’ve alienated may not go out of their way to fix every little (or big) mistake you’ve made.
Use waiting time profitably. Publishing a book takes a long time. If you feel like an editor is neglecting you, go pay her a visit. You’re likely to see someone whose desk, chairs, and floors are papered with manuscripts. If the office is tidy, you can bet that her email inbox is bursting and her Dropbox account overstuffed. Your project is one among many. Try to remember that.
Peer review can also be a slow process, since your peers have their own courses to teach, committees to serve on, and books and articles to write. Everyone says yes with good intentions, and then life intervenes. If it takes too long, though, make sure you ask polite questions.
When a book is ready to go into production, you have to wait for your editor to read it. Then it has to be copyedited. You’re always waiting for someone else to do their job. And that can be a great thing. I love getting a draft off my desk and onto someone else’s. I need the enforced break to stop thinking about it, otherwise I keep deleting adverbs, doing the hokey pokey with commas, and driving myself insane wanting to rewrite the whole thing. Once it’s sent off, I’m free to catch up on other stuff and by the time it comes back to me, I can read the manuscript with fresh eyes.
If you want media attention, you may have to generate it yourself. For most writers, publication date comes and goes with neither a bang nor a whimper — just silence and a resulting postpartum depression. I’ve seen authors laid low by this. I’ve been one of them. What I’ve learned is to be well into my next project when the book I’ve been working on is finally published.
When a book comes out, people like to ask, “How’s it doing?” Generally, writers have no idea. What are good sales figures? How many reviews are enough? Getting rich through writing happens rarely. If money comes, great. But you can’t count on it. Nor can you count on attracting groupies, having Oprah invite you to jump on her couch, or getting a rave review in The New York Times. Niko Pfund, president of Oxford University Press, offered some useful advice for academic authors on the promotion front.
As writers, we each get to decide what makes our book feel like a success. Perhaps having a published book will earn you tenure or a promotion. Maybe you feel good about putting forth an important argument and entering a larger conversation. Some people are happy just to be done with the blasted thing. For me, getting “You, go girl!” emails from strangers is reward enough. Friends don’t ask friends how the book is doing.
Don’t trash-talk your publisher. One of the most important things I learned from my boss at Oxford was that you don’t publish books, you publish authors. If you want to keep writing and publishing, it’s important to maintain a good relationship with the press that believed in you enough to put out your book. Please remember that publishing is filled with good, hard-working folks who never get enough credit. So try to give them the benefit of the doubt, and don’t go around at conferences carping about your publisher. That’s just ugly. If there’s a problem, bring it up politely, and assume best intentions. And don’t forget to say thank you.